It was 5:00 AM. Friends of ours were leaving for the States, and we had agreed to take them to the airport.
At its best, the drive is absolutely dreadful. It’s especially so at 5:00 AM. (But I’m quick to throw anything taking place at 5:00 AM in the “dreadful” category.) See, from where we live you have to travel along an unlit, two-lane road for kilometers. Judging from the number of potholes, you’d think you were tootling down some long forgotten backwoods road or the surface of the moon. On both counts you’d be wrong. You’re actually on the single major east-west highway in the country, a road that forms a northern bypass around the capital city.
Since we live on the northern side of the city, it’s the most direct route to the airport. Drive down the bypass long enough and eventually you reach an off-ramp. But keep your eyes alert or you just might miss it in the dark. Nope, the off-ramp’s not lit either.
Believe it or not, this is where things get worse. And I’m not talking about the quality of the road that awaits you at the bottom of the off-ramp. I wish I were. The road that leads the rest of the way to the airport is a beauty. It’s one of those broad divided numbers. It was repaved just last year and is lit up brighter than the Las Vegas Strip. Even at 5:00 AM.
So what’s the big deal? Oh, let me tell you. It even has a cute acronym, the three most dreaded letters on Kyrgyz streets. The “big deal” is a little something known as the GAI.
Now, if I knew Russian, at this point I might be able to tell you what those letters stand for. I don’t, so I can’t. It doesn’t matter though. The traffic police in almost every developing country is enough to strike fear into even the most stouthearted whether you know the meaning of the local acronym or not.
You see, at the bottom of the off-ramp sits a post. Outside the post usually stands one or two uniformed officers with glowing orange batons. (My personal conviction is that the devil himself upgraded his pitchfork for one of those glowing batons not too long after they first came out, and the GAI are faithfully following suit.)
They were waiting for us that morning at 5:00 AM. No, I take that back. It’s much more personal at this point. I think they were waiting for me.
With swank that would put a peacock to shame, the officer pointed his baton at me and then at the side of the road. I stopped the car and put down the window. I shook the police officer’s hand. (Yup, that’s a thing here.) He informed me the light that is supposed to illuminate my back license plate was out and asked me to follow him inside the post.
We’ve heard there’s a law that says police can only fine you for the specific infraction for which they stop you in the first place. (But like anyone really knows.) If true, that would mean the police can’t stop you and then try to find reasons to give you a fine. I asked the officer about that “rule” since there was obviously no way he could have seen my rear license plate until after he had stopped me. He said, in essence, that since this is an official post, they can do whatever they want. The logic is probably they stop all cars to “inspect” them. That’s their purpose, so anything they find during their “inspection” is fair game.
I left Laura and our two friends in the car and begrudgingly followed him inside. Like two kings looking out over their kingdom, two men sat at two different desks before a single window that looked out on the road leading to the airport. I was directed to the older of the two. The younger one was busy arguing with a woman in Russian—I think because her back license plate light was out, too.
I gave the older officer my driver’s license and car registration. I stood there for probably 20 minutes while he filled in all the boxes on his form. He told me my fine would be 350 soms (about $5.10). With as much haughty defiance as I could muster, I made it clear I would not give them cash and participate in corruption. (You can pay your fines in cash, but I’m suspect of doing so to say the least.) He said I could pay with a credit card. I just hoped their handheld card readers were working that morning.
At one point I thought I heard the number 150 in Russian as the younger officer and the woman were arguing. I asked the older officer in Kyrgyz if that’s the fine she had to pay for her burned-out light. He didn’t answer.
As I stood there, I took stock of the entire situation. It was pushing 5:45 by now, and here I was standing next to a police officer who was scribbling like crazy across a form that would end up taking him 20 minutes to fill out and that would result in a five dollar fine all because the light that’s supposed to illuminate my back license plate wasn’t working. At that same time all across the country, how many drunk drivers were threatening other drivers’ lives, not to mention their own? How many careless neanderthals were cutting in and out of traffic and racing stoplights? How many people were driving or riding without their seatbelts? How many were driving at multiple times the speed limit down unlit two-lane highways and passing cars on the opposite side of the road around blind curves? And I had to pay five dollars for a stupid light.
Then my thoughts shifted to the officer writing my ticket. He had probably been awake all night. I know for a fact that he was doing this job for peanuts—less than a paltry $200 a month. Where I see corruption, many see supplemental income. Necessary supplemental income. He was just doing his job. And if he could pocket a few more dollars in the process and buy his son a candy bar, why not?
And while I, the rich, indignant Westerner do have a legitimate problem with the fact that the vast majority of traffic police efforts are centered around catching people for committing trifling technicalities instead of working to ensure public safety, what exactly was that to him? He certainly wasn’t being paid enough to work toward universal police reform. His job was to write five-dollar tickets for people with burned-out license plate lights at 5:45 AM. That’s what his superiors had told him to do. That’s what he was being paid to do. So that’s what he was doing.
And oh the amount of crap he had to take from people like me in the process.
Suddenly these two men looked a lot less like kings on thrones and a lot more like slaves shackled to an abysmally broken system. And they certainly looked much less like agents of Satan, their glowing orange batons notwithstanding.
I decided to lower the intensity of my voice and give the man straight answers as he tried to make heads or tails of my international driver’s license.
I pronounced it slowly and with a Kyrgyz accent.
I gave it to him, and he jotted it down.
“Year this was issued?”
I directed him to the front page where the date was written and translated the English month into Kyrgyz.
“OK, you’ll pay over there,” he said, directing me to the younger officer.
My brief period of enlightenment suddenly went dark as I tried to push the fact that I thought the other woman had had to pay 150 soms ($2.20) for her light when they were charging me $5.10.
“No, no, she had to pay 500 soms,” the younger officer said, taking my credit card and inserting the chip side into the reader.
I demanded to know why I thought I had heard the number 150.
I didn’t understand the older officer exactly, but from his seat at the other desk, he said something to the effect of, “You know, it’s not proper to talk that way to a police officer.”
He was talking to me. And he was right.
Some 2,000 years ago, a very wise man wrote, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” and as far as I can tell, that universal mandate includes no clauses restricting its application only to those moments in which you think it’s fair according to your own personal judgment to do so.
It appeared they were working within their legal purview. Being a post, they probably really do have the authority to stop cars at will and inspect them. My back license plate light really was out. A provision for such instances probably really is written somewhere. A mere 350 soms is a reasonable amount to pay for a minor traffic violation here. Police officers might have a range of possible fines they’re able to issue, but this amount is very probably within that defined range.
Whether they charged that other woman 150 soms or 500 soms—or even if they let her go Scott-free—absolutely none of that is my concern. That’s why they get paid peanuts. It is decidedly not within my authority to disrespect them.
But that’s so hard.
It’s a battle I’ll continue to fight. I’m sure it’d help if I kept in mind the fact that they, just like drunk 40-year-old women outside grocery stores, are made in the image of God, and if for no other reason than that, they deserve respect. They’ll report to their ultimate Superior for their actions, and I’ll report to that same ultimate Superior for mine.
Now, if I could only somehow remember all this, especially the next time I find myself tootling down the road to the airport at 5:45 AM.